I’d been stressing for days about the fact I hadn’t got a ticket for the Val McDermid talk at Warwick Words. The online booking service implied the tickets had sold out. Anyway, I needn’t have worried, as a few days later my friend pointed out that the booking service was up and running properly again and hadn’t sold out. When we arrived at the venue on a cold Saturday evening earlier this month, I expected a packed house. You can imagine how surprised I was when the auditorium was at least two thirds empty. Where was everyone? It was almost embarrassing. Poor Val, I thought. Was it because X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing were on TV? Anyway, whatever the reason people stayed away, they missed a treat.
Val took to the stage and, after a brief introduction by a member of the Warwick Words committee, sat down to tell us, first of all, why she became a writer.
Val said she grew up hearing that ‘people like us aren’t writers’. The sort of comment that makes the more rebellious amongst us determined to prove otherwise, I suspect. Val comes from a working class mining community in Fife. Her father worked in the shipyards, and books were a luxury the family simply couldn’t afford. However, Val’s parents deemed education important. Val’s mother took her to the library before Val could speak properly and Val said she used to call it ‘going to the labrador’. Val’s family moved shortly afterwards to a house, which just happened to be opposite the central library in Kirkcaldy. It wasn’t long before Val had read the entire contents of that library. She said she was only allowed to take out four books at a time and two of those had to be non-fiction. Apparently, poetry and drama counted as non-fiction, so it wasn’t all bad.
Val spent her weekends at her grandparents. They didn’t have a library in their village, only a library bus. However, Val wasn’t allowed on the bus, as she didn’t live in the village. It was made worse by the fact that Val’s grandparents only had two books in their house, The Bible and Agatha Christie’s Murder At The Vicarage. Val grew up thinking that grown-up books had to have dead bodies in them. She read Murder At The Vicarage so many times and was desperate to read more Agatha Christie. She believes this led her into a life of crime. She then began to steal her mother’s library tickets to get into the adult section of her local library. She told the librarian that her mother wasn’t well and she had to get the books for her. Val then proceeded to read her way through the whole of the adult crime section.
The notion that the past casts a long shadow is a recurrent theme in Val’s novels. Val said she went back to Kirkcaldy Library as an adult and took her mother. The same librarians were working there as when she was a child. ‘I thought you must be dead,’ remarked one of them to her mother, as they’d always thought of her as a bedridden invalid. You can imagine the look Val’s mother gave her. The past had well and truly caught up with Val.
Later Val enjoyed reading private eye novels from the US. She liked seeing the way the characters reacted under pressure, always staying one step ahead of the detective. She loved the whole shape and structure of the crime novel.
When Val left school she went to Oxford University where she studied English Literature. Of course at Oxford, English Literature ended in 1945! However, she noticed, amongst the weighty tomes in her tutors’ rooms, the green and white spines of the Penguin Classic Crime series, so didn’t feel guilty about reading them for pleasure.
The Chalet School books were Val’s introduction to ‘series’ in literature. She was inspired by the main character in Chalet School, Jo Maynard. She realised for the first time that being a writer was a job; that you could be paid for ‘telling lies’.
When Val left Oxford she thought she was going to write ‘the great English novel’, featuring love, hate, betrayal, guilt and punting. She finished it and still has it as proof of how badly she can write.
She then wrote a play from the novel, which she took to a local theatre company. The director wanted to produce it. She was delighted. A playwright at the age of twenty-three! However, she didn’t know what she’d done right, so was unable to replicate her success. By this time, Val had acquired an agent. She didn’t know about writing courses then, otherwise she’d have probably gone to one about how to write plays. It wasn’t long before she got the dreaded letter from her agent beginning, ‘Dear Val McDermid, We are rationialising our client list...’. In short, Val had got the sack. She said this was the lowest point in her writing career.
By this time Val was working as a journalist, but it didn’t give her satisfaction. She wanted to make it all up, instead of just some of it! She knew how a crime novel worked, having read so many. You could either have lots of suspects or no suspects at all. She decided to write a crime novel with a main character who was a journalist. She also knew she’d need at least one dead body and a detective. This was the early 1980s and Val pointed out that there wasn’t much variety in crime writing then, unlike now. You either had police procedurals or the village mystery.
The villages Val knew weren’t in any way like St Mary Mead, the fictional village where Agatha Christie set her novels. There weren’t any spinsters doing gardening; no vicars, only ministers, and no retired colonels. Instead Val drew her inspiration from the USA. A friend of hers had gone to live there and had sent Val a Sara Paretsky novel. The urban setting and city life represented a world Val understood. She could identify with Sara’s strong female protagonist who had brains and a sense of humour. The individual against the world. Sara Paretsky’s books also contained both personal and social politics. Val wanted to write something in the same ball park. She wrote Report For Murder.
As a journalist, Val said she had Mondays off. She had few distractions and wrote from 2pm until 7pm every Monday. She wouldn’t answer the door or the phone. The rest of the week she’d be working out in her head what to revise or where to go next with the novel. She sent this first attempt to The Women’s Press.
Val said she believes that to have a literary career you need to have three things: a modicom of talent; the ability to work as hard as you possibly can; and luck. You have be in the right place at the right time with the right book. Val was lucky in that she rode on the back of the success of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Publishers were desperate for something with a similar flavour and a UK setting at the time she wrote her first book. Ian Rankin and Val used to laugh that it took them ten years to become an overnight sensation.
Val worked out that the advance for her first book would pay her mortgage for just six weeks. Report For Murder earns more money now than when she first sold it. When Val started writing the Lindsay Gordon books, she knew she wanted to write a trilogy. When she came to the end of the three books, she knew she’d have to do something different, so she started writing the Kate Brannigan books. In this series Val was aiming to give a different spin on the US private eye novel. She worked out that if she wrote and sold two books per year she could afford to give up her job as Northern Bureau Chief. She still had a pension at that time, as Rob Maxwell hadn’t jumped off his boat yet. Val was thirty-five when she gave up the day job. She said that not earning much for two years was a struggle and she didn’t buy any books or CDs. The Germans changed things, however, by giving her a big advance for her Kate Brannigan books.
All of a sudden it was time for questions from the audience. I was surprised when I looked at my watch. The time had flown. Val is such an entertaining speaker.
I was brave and asked the first question. I asked Val whether she was still supporting the Save The Short Story Campaign and she mentioned that there was now a National Short Story Competition and that things had improved considerably (can’t say I’ve noticed!). She said she enjoys both writing and reading short stories, especially Lawrence Block’s crime stories. Do take a look at his wonderful website, as he has some very interesting things to say about the short story: http://www.lawrenceblock.com/index_framesetfl.htm Val said, in her experience, as a writer short stories were like buses - three or four arrive at the same time, then nothing for ages.
Someone then asked if Val works out her plots beforehand. She said that which always worked for her was writing a detailed synopsis. She would write a paragraph on each chapter. Then she aimed to write 1,000-1,500 words per day. This worked for the first fifteen or sixteen books, then suddenly for her next book this formula stopped working for her. She managed to plot the beginning and end, but the middle slithered away from her. The more she tried to pin it down, the worse it got. She needed to meet her publisher’s deadline, as she’d taken the money and spent it, so she had no choice but to give them the book. She decided to go to Italy where there was no phone, no internet connection, and no TV. She sat and forced herself to write. She wrote 65,000 words in 9 days. (No, that isn’t a typo!) Her editor thought it was the strongest first draft Val had ever given her.
Val had a similar problem with the next book. She had thought the fact that she had the builders in had been the problem the first time round, but the problem was still there when they’d gone.
Now she works in a different way, Val told us. She knows the arc of the story, but doesn’t know any details. Then there’s a frenetic eight weeks when she forces herself to write and finish the novel. She said it was a very stressful way to write a book.
Val was asked where she got the idea for A Darker Domain, a recent novel set in the early eighties and set around the miners’ strike. She said that when a friend of hers was out running, she saw a dilapidated villa which had obviously been squatted and strange posters had been left there. Val said she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Val compared her brain to a massive compost heap. She chucks a lot on there, then it takes time to rot down.
Someone then asked Val whether she’d ever had any desire to write something other than a crime novel. The answer was a resounding, ‘No!’. She said that crime was a very broad church, so there was plenty to write about, as well as many different styles and sub-genres.
Another interesting question was whether Val scared or shocked herself by what her characters do. She answered no, because she is in control and knows what happens. As a writer she is thinking different things from the reader. Not, ‘Oh, this is scary!’, but ‘Should that adjective be there?’. She said that, in other words, she has more technical concerns.
Finally Val was asked what she was currently reading. The answer was Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen and Peter Temple’s Truth. Val remarked that Peter Temple writes really well about women.
I could have sat there all night listening to Val McDermid. I’ve always been a big fan of her books, particularly the Tony Hill series. My absolute favourite of hers is A Place Of Execution. Why, oh why, did I embarrass myself at the signing table by inadvertently jumping the queue? It could have been worse. I could have knocked over Val’s glass of red wine.